The Samovar

My first thanksgiving
November 29, 2008, 9:38 pm
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I gave thanks for the puissance of the colonialists who conquered the natives, thus allowing me to be enjoying this fine ritual eating of a turkey. Needless to say, this didn’t go down well with the Americans I was eating with.

It was very exciting for me to have a thanksgiving dinner because I’d never had one before and it was like getting to have an early christmas dinner. So off we went to find the ingredients for a traditional thanksgiving, which is not an easy task in Paris and involved trips to La Grande Epicerie and Rue Mouffetard. The turkey itself was the most difficult bit, seeing as it’s not a particular favourite of the Parisians. We did find some eventually, but I knew when I saw the 4.5kg beasts that there was no way they would fit in my tiny Paris apartment style oven, so I tentatively asked si on peut prendre une demie-dinde and much to my surprise, yes we could! And here it is, in my tiny weeny little oven.


And later on, cooked:


We also had homemade cranberry sauce:


And stuffing:


There was also mashed potatoes, and spiced, caramelised sweet potatoes, which you can see being made here:


There was also pumpkin pie and carrot cake for pudding (no picture for some reason I forgot). Man, did we eat waaay too much. I wouldn’t have eaten anything at all the next except that I brought the remainder of the pudding in to work so that people in my office could have some, but as hardly anybody came in to work that day for some reason, I ended up eating most of the carrot cake myself.


Verdict: English christmas dinner is better, but this was pretty good too.

Pinchy: the story of a gumbo
November 9, 2008, 3:31 am
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So I had promised a friend that I would make her a gumbo since about a year ago, and now she’s leaving Paris in a week or so, so it seemed like if I was going to do this gumbo it had better be this weekend. After a year of build up this was going to have to be some pretty awesome gumbo. So I wrote my ideal list of ingredients from the most luxury gumbo recipe in my creole cook book, thinking I’d head to the shops and see which bits I could find:

  • crab
  • oysters
  • prawns
  • chicken
  • beef
  • bacon
  • cooked ham
  • ham bone
  • green peppers
  • onion
  • scallions
  • tomatoes
  • celery
  • parsley
  • thyme
  • (other things I already had: bay leaves, cayenne pepper, filé powder which someone had brought over from the US for me specifically for this gumbo, salt, pepper)

It was a little late in the day, too late to start trying to find a good fishmonger and anyway most of them are closed at that time, so I just went to the big supermarket near me. Well what do you know but this supermarket was selling live crabs and lobsters (and at not a bad price really, €5 for a crab, €12 for a lobster). So I picked up most of the ingredients above, leaving out the ham and substituting mussels for oysters because they were only selling oysters in boxes of 24 which would have been fine for the gumbo but the thought of shucking 24 oysters was not fine.

Well, I’ve never bought and cooked a live, scuttling animal before. Mussels don’t count – they’re alive but they don’t scuttle. Crabs scuttle. At the supermarket, they just pop the little guy into a bag and you take him off, meanwhile he’s trying to claw his way out and just generally acting agitated. I don’t think the girl at the checkout had ever seen anyone buying one of these before and was a little upset about having to pick up the bag. On my way home I decided to name him Pinchy after the lobster in the Simpsons. This was probably a mistake because I knew I was going to be pouring boiling water over him and boiling him to death soon. Here’s Pinchy preparing for his fate.


Turns out that having boiling water poured on them is quite agitating for a crab. Hopefully I won’t be having nasty dreams about the next moment. Twenty minutes later, here’s Pinchy again.


Well anyway, that’s really the exciting part of the story over. Then we got to cracking Pinchy open and teasing out his fat and flesh, etc. But boy, was he a damn tasty crab. Assuming the bad dreams don’t kick in, I think I’ll be buying some more of his kind, and maybe a lobster or two too. I won’t detail the long and rather laborious (approximately 4 hour) cooking process. Suffice it to say many things were chopped, complicated stocks were produced by boiling up various animals, carcasses, heads, etc.

End result: pretty damn good shit. I think I can improve on this gumbo, but I don’t see myself making it often. It’s pretty expensive and very time consuming. Plus, I ended up using pretty much every pot and pan in my apartment twice over. Fortunately, I had helpers to do the washing up.

Some more pics.

I actually ended up using quails rather than chicken because a whole chicken was too much and the little baby chicken was €8 compared to these two quails at €3. And they even came with their little heads still on. Making gumbo is not for the light hearted.


The mussels.


And the final product. Well, it doesn’t look that great but with gumbo it’s the taste that counts, not the appearance.


And here’s a bonus item, last week’s pumpkin:


Girolles with hazelnut oil at Le Chiberta
September 7, 2008, 10:46 am
Filed under: Cooking, Food | Tags: , , , , ,

Last night I had dinner at Le Chiberta just off the Champs Elysées (in Paris). Had a fantastic meal – probably my nicest in Paris so far although I have a couple of rather tasty places lined up to go to before I leave. My only criticism is that it’s a little expensive and you can probably eat as well for less at other places. Some online reviews said the place had a slightly cold atmosphere, but I didn’t find that at all (although I think I was the only man there not wearing a shirt and jacket, bof!).

But what I wanted to talk about was the exceptionally clever pairings of tastes in the food because even if you’re living a long way from Paris you could try these out. For my starter, I had a sort of salad of girolles mushrooms, thin slices of artichoke, some sort of very fatty cured ham (I don’t remember the name) and hazelnut oil. An unbelievably subtle and refined set of flavours. The hazelnut oil and girolles together was an experience akin to eating truffles (and much cheaper!). I plan to do some experimenting with hazelnut oil, I think it has a lot of potential. Let me know if you have some interesting ideas or if you’ve tried some recipes with these in.

The other starter was a velouté (velvety textured light purée/soup) of green peas with a little blob of almond mousse, along with whole green peas on a slice of toasted almond bread.

My main course was lamb with a sort of ratatouille terrine (amazing) and tapenade. Delicious, but a bit more classic.

The other main course was chicken (poached and grilled, maybe sous-vide) with a gravy lightly infused with lemongrass. Surprisingly delicious combination. In our meal, the chicken was the probably rather difficult to get hold of volaille de Challans which has a very strong flavour unlike most chicken you buy in the shops (certainly stronger than any chicken I’ve ever bought), and maybe the dish wouldn’t work so well with a blander, ordinary chicken. Still though, definitely worth trying out.

My pudding was plums prepared three ways, with mirabelles, quetsches and Reine Claude plums (greengages in England).

Let me know how it went if you try out any of those ideas, particularly the hazelnut oil.

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Thai curry
November 4, 2007, 11:53 pm
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food, Recipes | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Today I finally got round to visiting Paris’ chinatown. It has taken me an inexcusably long time given that it’s only about 10 minutes walk from me, but my excuse is I’ve been busy. Didn’t take any photos, but here’s one from


Anyway, the good news is that this means I can now very easily buy the somewhat difficult to find ingredients for making a good Thai curry (recipe below).  I’m coming to the conclusion that one of the best ways to buy prawns is raw and frozen, in large boxes from Chinese supermarkets (at a very low price). Whenever I’ve done this in the past, they’ve invariably been really good quality, and today was no exception. Frozen prawns have a bad reputation, but perhaps that’s based on prawns frozen after being cooked, or ones that have been frozen, defrosted at the supermarket and sold to you looking as if they were fresh?

The recipe

This is how I make it, any thoughts?

  • Thai curry paste – you can make your own, but I never quite feel it’s worth the effort when there are quite decent ones available. I really should have a go some day though, it’s not that difficult. For the one I use, about 1 large teaspoon per person seems about right.
  • Coconut milk, about 200 ml per person (half a tin).
  • Garlic, chopped.
  • Some vegetables. I used mini-aubergines (I find the Thai green aubergines a little bitter for my tastes) and red pepper.
  • Some meat or fish (optional). I used prawns today. If using meat, chop it into bitesize pieces.
  • Fish sauce, to taste.
  • Lime leaves, finely chopped. These can be a killer to get hold of. Your best bet is in the frozen foods section of a Chinese supermarket. I used to live near a Thai supermarket that had them fresh, but apparently it’s no longer legal to import them unfrozen into the EU. I use about 2 leaves per person.
  • Thai basil, ripped or roughly chopped. The name is a bit confusing, as what one shop calls Thai basil another may call holy basil and a third may call sweet basil. The one I mean has an aniseedy smell to it. About 10-20 leaves per person.
  • Groundnut oil

Heat some groundnut oil in a wok or saucepan until the oil is hot but not smoking. Add the garlic and stir until it begins to colour. Put in the curry paste, and cook it, stirring, for a minute or two. Add the coconut milk and bring it to a boil. If you’re using meat or fish other than prawns (which only take a couple of minutes to cook), add them now. Add the fish sauce and a little water depending on how thick you want the sauce. It’s actually quite nice to put quite a lot of water in and turn the Thai curry into more of a soup, and eat it the Thai way (with a bowl of rice which you pick up with your spoon and dip into the soup). Add the vegetables and or prawns in an order which means they’ll be cooked by the time your rice is cooked. It only take about 6-7 minutes for chicken or about 2-3 minutes for prawns. Finally, a minute before the end, put in the lime leaves and basil.

Make sure not to attempt to eat with chopsticks (a common faux pas in Thai restaurants is to ask for chopsticks).

September 15, 2007, 12:15 am
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food, Recipes

I made this tonight (sea bass with chanterelles, trompettes de mort and a brunoise of ratatouille). Fantastic. Also looks an interesting blog for a foodie who has just moved to Paris…

Courgette risotto
July 14, 2007, 9:03 pm
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food, Recipes

I asked for suggestions on courgette risotto a while ago, and tonight I finally got round to making it – delicious!


In the end, I stuck to the basic plan I already made, cut off the skins, put the flesh in the risotto early so that it partially dissolves, and cook the chopped skins separately. I cooked the skins until they were quite brown although I didn’t bother to get out my griddle pan in the end. I also toasted some pinenuts, and put in some chopped herbs (oregano and parsley) and a tiny squeeze of lemon. I served it with some homemade pesto.


I think there are a few things I would do differently if I was doing it again, so here is my recommended recipe (not quite how I did it):

Ingredients (for 2)

  • 2 courgettes, skins taken off and roughly chopped, flesh finely chopped (I only roughly chopped it, and I think it would have been better done fine)
  • Handful of pinenuts, toasted
  • Herbs, chopped (some combination of parsley, oregano, marjoram, basil, mint probably)
  • Lemon juice to taste (probably about 1/3 of a lemon’s worth)
  • Pesto (optional, it was quite nice but fine without)
  • Onion, risotto rice, parmesan, stock, wine, butter, oil, salt, pepper

Soften onions in olive oil, add risotto rice and toast for a minute or so. Pour in some wine or dry vermouth and boil until dry. Put in the finely chopped courgette flesh, some stock and half the herbs. Cook as a normal risotto.

Meanwhile, saute the courgette skins in butter on a high heat so they soften a bit (but not mushy) and brown. Add the lemon juice and herbs to this. Toast the pinenuts.

When the risotto is ready, stir in the pinenuts, parmesan, butter, salt and pepper and test for seasoning. Finally, lightly fold in the skins, herbs and lemon mixture.

Serve with the pesto on the side.

RFC: Courgette Risotto
July 7, 2007, 1:25 am
Filed under: Cooking, Food, Recipes

So I have this idea in mind that I want to make courgette risotto but I’ve not done it before and most of the recipes I’ve looked at don’t look that inspiring. I feel with courgettes you need to do something with them rather than just stick ’em in and hope it tastes nice.  Any thoughts?

Some of the ideas I’ve had so far:

  • Two ways of cooking them: slice off the skins and roughly chop them, and do the same with the insides. Cook the insides along with the rest of the risotto so they dissolve into the risotto. Meanwhile, saute the chopped skins on a high heat  for a short time so they retain some texture and stir into the risotto right at the end.
  • Herbs: I think the BBC recipe I looked at a few days ago had the right idea – lots of herbs. I was thinking about basil, parsley, maybe oregano, maybe mint.
  • Pesto: Never tried the combination of pesto and courgette but apparently it’s fantastic. I was thinking perhaps a small amount at the side rather than stirring it in.
  • Pine nuts: Thinking about pesto, the idea of toasting some pine nuts and stirring them into the risotto seemed a good one for taste and texture. What about other nuts?
  • Third way: a Raymond Blanc recipe I was looking at had courgette ribbons – very thin slices of courgette, marinated in oil, salt, pepper and (I think) lemon; then cooked for a very short time on a high heat, covered. They sound nice and could be used in various ways in a courgette risotto – perhaps as a base, on the side, or even stirred in.

There’s also another question – what would courgette risotto go with? I usually have risotto on its own, but perhaps in this case it would be nicer made in a smaller quantity with some sort of meaty or birdy thing.

While I’m here – any thoughts on aubergine risotto? Apparently it’s very good – also never tried it.

Seasonal pesto dish
June 14, 2007, 12:08 am
Filed under: Cooking, Food, Recipes

Mostly just an excuse for writing down my pesto recipe (below).

Last night I cooked tagliatelle with pesto, peeled asparagus, broad beans and fresh peas, with a decoration of tomato concasse (the final e should have an acute accent, it’s just raw tomatoes peeled, seeded and finely chopped). Damn good – I recommend it. The freshness of the uncooked tomato balances the rich cheesiness of the pesto.

Pesto (for 2)

  •  80g basil leaves, removed from the stalks and carefully washed and squeezed dry
  • 1-3 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2-3 tbsp pine nuts
  • 6 tbsp olive oil
  • 40-80g pecorino or parmesan, or a mixture of the two (use sardo, a Sardinian ewe’s milk cheese for maximal authenticity), grated
  • Salt and pepper

Blend the basil, garlic, pine nuts, olive oil, salt and pepper to a rough puree. Stir in the cheese. Add a few tbsp of the boiling pasta water just before draining and mixing them together to loosen it up a bit.

June 12, 2007, 1:35 am
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food | Tags:

On my old blog, barbecues featured heavily, but so far this one has remained BBQ free. Sunny weather in London over the last few days means I can finally remedy that.

That’s scallops wrapped in pancetta flaming away there. It’s a delicious barbecue combination, but the large amount of fat in the pancetta dripping on to the charcoal and going on fire makes it a little bit dramatic.

Fillet steak! Not from meatsacks. Macro mode on my phone is pretty nifty too.

Not everything involved death to animals though. These tomatoes for example (which were dressed with – of course – single estate extra virgin olive oil and 10 year old balsamic vinegar) only contributed to world misery indirectly, being, as they were, flown in from Sardinia at the cost of the average global temperature. More eco-friendly British asparagus also featured:

But not stomach-friendly as you might be able to tell from the large yellowish rectangular object in the picture above.

Finally, we washed it down with my very own ultimate (in the sense of fatal) hot chocolate.

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May 3, 2007, 11:50 pm
Filed under: Consumption, Cooking, Food, Recipes

I just had a brainwave on cooking asparagus.

Most people boil asparagus for varying lengths of time. There’s a trade-off between how flavoursome the end result is, and the texture. If you boil for 2 or 3 minutes, you keep much of the flavour but you end up with a texture which is too crunchy for many people. If you boil for longer, you lose a lot of flavour into the water. There is also a change in the quality of the flavour, boiling it for a short period of times gives it a much ‘grassier’ flavour.

Steaming asparagus is a great improvement as much less flavour is lost into the water. About 4 or 5 minutes works reasonably well.

One way to keep more of the flavour is to cook the asparagus in a small amount of oil or butter instead of a large amount of water. Sauteing, baking and roasting all produce lovely strongly flavoured asparagus. But there’s another problem here, which is that when you use these methods, it tends to colour the asparagus. At the extreme (cooking them in a frying pan with oil) you tend to get almost burnt bits by the time the asparagus is cooked through. This is worst at the tips, a problem you can alleviate by cutting off the very fine hairy bit at the very tip. This method of cooking them also tends to accentuate the dark, earthy qualities of the flavour, which is sometimes just what you want but not always.

The biggest breakthrough for me was seeing how Heston Blumenthal (one of the top chefs in the world) cooks asparagus. His method is to peel the stalks but leaves the tips as they are (see below), and then to cook them gently in a frying pan in butter. He also recommends serving them with very thin slices of button mushrooms, shavings of white truffle and finely chopped chervil – very luxurious but not very practical. Whenever I can be bothered I now use the peeling method which seems to bring out all the unique qualities of the asparagus flavour without the grassy or earthy flavours (which are presumably denser in the skin of the stalk than elsewhere). But, it’s a lot of work to individually peel asparagus stalks, especially if they are thin ones.


Before I get to the brainwave, here is how my godfather Mikey cooks them. He half boils them, but reserves some of the cooking liquid. Having done so, he puts butter, garlic, the boiled asparagus and the reserved liquid into a pan and finishes cooking them, whilst also reducing the liquid and making a delicious sauce to go with them. It’s a great method, but I thought that it might be possible to do better. First of all – you’re still losing lots of flavour into the water. Not as much because you’re not completely cooking them in the water, and you reserve some of the liquid (but only a small amount). Second – this method commits you to having a sauce to go with them. Usually that’s fine, but what if you wanted to use them as part of another recipe rather than serving on their own?

So at last, the brainwave…

I wanted a method for cooking asparagus which didn’t involve peeling, but retained as much flavour as possible, inspired by Mikey’s method. I tried my new method tonight (along with a Dorade stuffed with thyme and baked with tomatoes, olives, white wine, olive oil, bay leaves and slices of lemon), and it worked very well indeed.

In a frying pan large enough to hold all the asparagus you intend to cook in roughly one layer (a bit of overlap is fine, but not as much as two layers), melt a decent amount of butter. Maybe 20g of butter for a bunch of 15-20 spears. Enough to generously coat the base of the pan anyway. Throw in the asparagus, stir and cook for a short while. Now pour in a small amount of boiling water from a kettle, enough to come half way up the asparagus spears. Bring this to the boil and cook at a fast simmer or slow boil. You want to time it so that the water has all boiled off at the exact moment that the asparagus is cooked through. You should end up with a fairly dry pan and juicy, perfectly cooked asparagus.

It’s still not quite as good as the peeling method, but it’s the best I’ve managed so far without peeling. You still lose some flavour to the boiled off water, but not as much as simply boiling or steaming.